Andres Oppenheimer

Brazil’s new foreign policy is promising


Judging from what Brazil’s foreign minister, Jose Serra, suggested in an interview, Latin America’s biggest country will make a major change in its foreign policy: It will no longer be an unconditional supporter and ideological ally of Cuba, Venezuela, and other authoritarian regimes.

Serra — a veteran politician and former presidential candidate who has served as governor of Sao Paulo, development minister and health minister — told me that Brazil’s new government of interim President Michel Temer will place a much greater emphasis on the defense of human rights in the region.

“There will be a new foreign policy,” Serra told me in a telephone interview. “The [central] idea will be that Brazil’s foreign policy must serve the interests of the nation, and not that of one party or one ideology, as has been the case in recent years.”

Under suspended President Dilma Rousseff — who is undergoing an impeachment process — and her predecessor, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Brazil had supported some of the world’s worst human-rights offenders.

Both belong to the leftist Workers’ Party. The conventional wisdom in diplomatic circles is that they had virtually ceded the leadership of Brazil’s foreign policy to the leftist wing of their party, in part, to compensate for some of their pro-business economic policies.

Lula had even campaigned for late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, whom he described in a 2008 interview as “without a doubt, the best president Venezuela has had in the last 100 years.” Under both Rousseff and Lula, Brazil’s ties with Latin America were run by Marco Aurelio Garcia, a powerful presidential aide who had close ties with Cuba and Venezuela.

Also, under its two previous presidents, Brazil wanted to project itself as a Third World leader and turned a blind eye on human-rights abuses abroad in an effort to establish closer ties with African and Middle Eastern regimes.

Now, the Temer government has fired Garcia and issued a statement strongly rejecting Cuba’s and Venezuela’s claims that Rousseff’s suspension had amounted to a “coup.” The Foreign Ministry statement accused the two countries of “spreading falsehoods” about Brazil’s democracy.

The new Brazilian government plans to re-focus the country’s foreign policy on expanding economic ties and defending human rights.

“Obviously, we will have a more emphatic position regarding the defense of human rights, regardless of the countries involved,” Serra told me. “We won’t intervene in other countries’ internal affairs, but without any doubts we will have [stronger] stands in that regard.”

In practical terms, the new Brazilian government is considering closing up to 17 embassies in Africa and the Caribbean as part of its spending cuts to cope with the disastrous economic crisis left behind by the Rousseff government. Those embassies had been opened under the Rousseff and Lula administrations as part of their efforts to become Third World leaders.

Other major changes expected to be carried out by Brazil’s new government will be to sign a free-trade deal between South America’s MERCOSUR common market and the European Union and to allow the regional bloc’s members to sign bilateral free-trade deals with non-MERCOSUR countries.

Regarding the defense of democracy, former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso — who is close to the new government — told me in a separate interview that Brazil is likely to support regional diplomatic sanctions against Venezuela under the Organization of American States’ Democratic Charter for breaking the rule of law.

“Without a doubt, to the best of my knowledge, [the new government] will be more supportive of applying the democratic clause,” Cardoso told me. “That’s a commitment that has been signed, and that must be complied with.”

My opinion: Brazil’s foreign policy is likely to change for the better. Under Rousseff and Lula, Brazil had turned a blind eye on human-rights abusers.

Now, while Temer’s government will focus on cleaning up Rousseff’s economic mess and its main priority abroad will be promoting Brazilian exports, Brazil will probably carry out a less ideologically driven foreign policy, more in tune with that of Western democracies.

And Serra won’t be a low-key foreign minister. He is one of Brazil’s best-known politicians, and a man of solid democratic credentials who was forced into exile during Brazil’s dictatorship in the 1960s and who will want to leave his mark in his new job.

If he does what he says, Brazil — by its sheer economic and diplomatic weight — will have a big, and positive, impact in the region.

Watch “Oppenheimer Presenta” at 9 p.m. Sunday on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera

Watch “Oppenheimer Presenta” Sundays at 9 p.m. on CNN en Español